One last look-back at the London International String Quartet Competition

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Sandy WilsonSaturday’s marathon at Wigmore found the six semifinalists going toe to toe with Beethoven. What was inescapable was the admirably polished and refined niveau that prevailed. Much hair-splitting was required to distinguish between the virtues and quirks of many of the interpretations. For the most part the execution was scarily good. Divided into two programs at 2 and 7pm, there was just time between to get a bite to eat before taking another swing at the 3rd 59/2 to the day which kicked off the the 7pm program.

The afternoon’s sequence began with the first performance of the three 2nd Razumovsky’s lined up in the semi-finals played by the Arcadia Quartet from Romania. The reading was polished and suave though to my taste, uneventful. The playing was clean and balanced but to my ears rather un-nuanced in the sense that it was interpretively too safe, rather lacking in personality. When it was over, I was left wondering if it was just me or if this was just a young group a little shy of letting Beethoven’s uncompromising and unrelenting passion hold sway. It never quite came into focus.

The 2nd performance on the program remains for me perhaps the highlight of all those performances I heard (I missed a lot of the preliminary round performances because of my masterclass agenda). The Dover Quartet from the US (currently at Rice’s Shepherd School) obliged with a take no prisoners performance of op. 132. What ensued was a sweeping interpretation of gorgeous and exquisite detail. Every opportunity was mined for its maximum expressive “gold” and the whole emerged with stunning clarity and profundity – not least the exquisite 3rd movement, nor the last movement for its hair-raising virtuosity. It seemed not a single note in a single measure for nearly 47 contiguous minutes escaped un-tended or without consciously purposeful deployment. The Dover Quartet’s refinement and maturity as evidenced in this reading of one of Beethoven’s most elusive quartets was quite simply stunning by any standard.

The afternoon’s program concluded with yet another 59/2, this one by Switzerland’s Grémeaux Quartet. This was a more fevered presentation than the first, it seemed a touch flighty and delicate, suggesting a more Mozartean approach. It inevitably alluded to vastly expressive undercurrents which sadly were not realized sonically.

After a welcome and refreshing break and a brisk walk in Marylebone, the evening performance promised to be a little more compact with only one performance of 59/2 followed by two of Beethoven’s rather shorter late quartets.

Poland’s Meccorre Quartet led off with what was without reservation, a truly beautiful performance of the E Minor. The tempi were edgy and the visceral elements were played with the appropriate abandon and risk, all of which make this particular composition so irresistibly compelling. There wasn’t much to pick at in this interpretation.

The UK’s Piatti Quartet followed with a reserved performance of the op. 74 “Harp” Quartet. Unless compelled specifically to perform this work in a competitive context, it proves an ill-advised choice when the choice of eight middle/late alternative quartets are on offer. Neither the charms of the last movement variations, nor the beautifully worked intricacies of the inner movements can compensate for the fact that after the first movement fireworks are over, the work is compositionally more modest and inevitably less compelling than the other options. The Harp did no favors in this case either to the Piatti, an otherwise well balanced ensemble.

The final work of the evening was perhaps appropriately enough, Beethoven’s last complete composition, the op. 135. Relatively compact at under 30 minutes, the meat and potatoes here hinge on the practically demented wild fiddling in the 2nd movement trio section, the impossibly timeless 3rd and culminating with the riddle of the “unanswered question” of the last movement. This was again perhaps a dubious choice of repertoire considering the circumstances yet, every quartet understood coming in to this competition that this semifinal round would be judged on the ensembles’ own choice of Beethoven quartet. Considering the relative advantages and disadvantages of the options therefore, one has to expect that it would have to be a flawless performance of this work that could conceivably trump 59/2. Unfortunately the Tesla Quartet did not deliver a flawless performance. In fact it was admirable in many ways but what was the worst trespass of all, they revealed quite visibly that they were unhappy with it. This was not a competition winning presentation.

HOWEVER – all was not lost

If based on the performances in the semifinals alone, I would have had considerable difficulty choosing a winner between the Meccorre’s and Dover Quartet superb performances. In trying to rank the other four ensembles however, I found myself struggling mightily. Without doubt all of the performances were commendable but the two which were clearly outstanding to me were so head and antlers above the others that I had to dig through my detailed notes to attempt to rank them. Fortunately the distinguished and international jury had their own mechanism and indeed, the benefit of having heard every performance throughout the week prior. With the benefit of such dedicated and sustained listening to performances of a Haydn, a Mozart, a modern work of the groups’ individual choosing and an imposed contemporary work (Brett Dean) from every group, the jury had a firm footing from which to place the three ensembles that advanced to the Sunday evening finals.

After a 30 minute hiatus during which a great many audience members repaired to the Bechstein salon in Wigmore’s basement for refreshment and no doubt good-natured bantering on the likely outcome of the jury’s deliberations, we were rewarded with a fairly terse announcement that in alphabetic order, the Arcadia, Meccorre and Tesla quartets would be the three finalists. The sequence and precise program (19th century Romantic quartets of the ensemble’s own choosing) would be announced on the internet by noon the following day,

Sunday evening’s Competition Finals program was in fact highly satisfying if a little irregular in combination of repertoire.

The Meccorre led off with Schubert’s D minor “Death and the Maiden,” followed by an interval. The Tesla began the 2nd “half” with Debussy and the Arcadia ended with the Mendelssohn A minor, op. 13. All the performances were ramped up a notch for the occasion. Somehow a really great audience encourages that and of course, each of the three quartets rose to the challenge too.

The final outcome?

The Arcadia took first; the Meccorre second and the Tesla took third. Three additional prizes were awarded during the culminating awards ceremony for the best performances of the imposed contemporary work and the Haydn and Beethoven quartets. I was particularly gratified to to note that the Dover Quartet, otherwise shut out during the semi-finals round were awarded both the Jeunesses Musicales “Deutschland” Prize and the Morrison Chamber Music Center Prize. Thanks to this particular outcome, audiences in San Francisco may look forward to hearing this exceptionally fine and young American ensemble in the relatively near future on S.F. State University’s venerated chamber music series. Don’t miss it!

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